War is Swell
June 1, 2010 – February 2nd. It’s hot and sticky. The sky is a blanket of acrid smoke over a blood sun. The mission is liberation. A military and CIA base has been hit by a hostile takeover. We’re here to renegotiate. From the belly of the chopper, the streets of Hue city seem almost purified by the napalm lake of fire. The skeletal palms and ferns seem to have roots in Hell. Nearing the LZ now. The echoes of assault rifles grow deafening. Anti-Aircraft shells thunder through the air with Anti-Capitalist sentiment. We’re ready to rappel in.
An unlucky potshot puts a hole in our bird. Everything is spinning as we hang from the plummeting helicopter. We pinball through the glass windows of a nearby office. Things are still spinning. It smells like ash and sounds like an earthquake. A hostile enters shouting and a squad member gets the jump on him. Snaps his neck. Blows away his pals. Tosses me his shotgun. Time to go to work.
That was only part of our introduction to Call of Duty: Black Ops. Things might be rocky for Infinity Ward these days, but Activision is making sure Call of Duty fans have reason to pick up their controllers. The kind of blockbuster action set pieces and tensely precise encounters with enemy NPC’s and squad members are certainly present and accounted for. Developer Treyarch is blending an ambitious narrative with combat and squad mechanics of the instant classic Modern Warfare games. Though the developers of Modern Warfare won’t be involved, the series may land one of its most effective one-two combinations yet with the future release of ‘Black Ops’.
Modern Warfare fans will feel right at home when they see the action on-screen in ‘Black Ops’, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some big changes on the way. The story will be the first in the series to be set in the Cold War era. “[Call of Duty: Black Ops] is so much of a departure from the past. Behind enemy lines doing covert ops… it presents a lot of opportunities for new experiences,” says Dan Bunting, senior producer on ‘Black Ops’. You can feel the difference. The setting and subject matter provide a much different vibe from earlier entries. One level demoed (and described in the opening paragraph), Slaughterhouse, is set in the burning Vietnamese city, Hue. The stage demonstrates a very real sense of the kind of story and gameplay that Treyarch is aiming to package in ‘Black Ops’.
The situation is at a crisis point. There are hostile squads everywhere. Civilians are often caught in the crossfire. Chaos is the order of the day. If war is Hell, Slaughterhouse is its waiting room. These are dangerous times and small squads of elite operatives are your best hope of stopping the Red Menace. According to Bunting, the story will span a good length of time and encompass several characters and many global locations. Treyarch hopes the focus on the shadow ops narrative will allow them the freedom to deliver a tale that is both ‘familiar’ to fans and ‘deep’ and ‘universal’.
Another demoed level, introduced by Treyarch Studio Head, Mark Lamia at Activision’s LA pre-E3 showcase, begins with a birds-eye view of a squad infiltrating an enemy position at a weapons manufacturing facility in Russia, er, USSR, I suppose. From the first-person view of your stealth bomber you recon and command your ghost team through the snowy wilderness. This soon transitions to a live cutscene as you watch enemy units pass your team’s position. After rappelling down a powdery cliff face, you are treated to an awesome slow-motion sequence as you and your squad mate crash and blast your way through the windows of a substation. The environment is awesome. An advisor on the development team served in Vietnam with the Studies and Observation group, an early predecessor to the modern-day black ops program. Treyarch seems to have taken a lot of their advice. Every piece of the scene blends to create a hectic sense of the intensity of deniable ops missions – a scope-mounted crossbow delivers vicious precision, brackets of automatic gunfire ring out, and hushed footsteps through the Soviet snow will bring you into their world. “There’s a level of authenticity there… We try to capture the harshness of war. We’re showing a different side,” Bunting said.
As your combat shotgun thunders through the bloodying base of operations, you soon find yourself ducking falling pines and the threat of imminent avalanche. You and your squad race to the edge of the ridge. You leap from into the icy air as the demo comes to a close. Those images and the thought of the Dragon’s Breath shotgun shells and a half dozen other improvised and co-opted arms (based on real life weapons, apparently) were enough to make us wonder just where Treyarch’s new soldier is going to land. With a team nearly double the size of their last CoD effort – with twice the time to work on multiplayer – ‘Black Ops’ might step out of the shadows. Or pull you in.